Willie Mays turned 80 this year, and Mickey Mantle would have turned 80 last month, and that tells you that 1931 was one heck of a baseball year. I don't know anything at all about wine, but for as long as I can remember I've been fascinated by the concept of good and bad years for wine. I admit my fascination is mostly built from scenes in movies where snooty rich men try to impress women (and end up annoying the heck out of everyone) by ordering a bottle of wine from 1961 rather than 1962.
Monday, November 21, 2011
One of the great thrills of my life was being a guest with Larry Munson for a Georgia football game. This was a thrill for a two reasons. One is that college football in the South is religion … and Larry Munson was Billy Graham. He did not call Georgia football games, he preached football games -- with humor and gospels and hell and brimfire and the story of miracles.
"Lindsey Scott! Thirty-five, forty. Lindsey Scott! Forty-five, forty! Run Lindsey! Twenty-five, twenty, fifteen, ten, five! Lindsey Scott! Lindsey Scott! Lindsey Scott! … I can't believe it, 92 yards, and Lindsey really got in a foot race. I broke my chair. I came right through a chair. A metal steel chair with about a five-inch cushion. The booth came apart. The stadium, well, the stadium fell down."
That was how Larry Munson called Lindsey Scott's 92-yard catch and run when Georgia beat Florida, almost certainly the most remarkable and significant play in Georgia football history. Lindsey ran. A chair broke. The booth came apart. The stadium fell down. Amen. Please turn to page 345 in your hymnal and sing with the choir: "Herschel: My God, A Freshman."
Larry Munson called Georgia football games for more than 40 years, and he called them joyously, passionately, colorfully and, yes, through Bulldog red glasses. The Bulldogs were the good guys. The Bulldogs were "We." A good day was a day that Georgia won. But, at least in my memory, he was not the sort of annoying hometown announcer who bashes the officials endlessly or believes that his team is getting cheated or that they can do no wrong. He was a different kind of fan. In truth, Munson was hard on Georgia … as fans often are hard on their own teams. He had learned from the master of poor mouthing -- Georgia's legendary coach Vince Dooley -- that the other team had AMAZING talent and INCREDIBLE coaching and it would take a REMARKABLE effort just to stay on the field with them, even if that other team was 0-8 and did not offer scholarships.
If you could sum up the Munson Georgia perspective it was roughly this: "We might win, but it will take some real doing."
But what made Munson wonderful was not his perspective but his style. He did not grow up in the South. He was a Minnesota kid. He was a medic in World War II and his first two jobs were in North Dakota and Wyoming. But when he got to the American South he found that his rhythms and the Georgia rhythms clicked. His gravel voice was cigarettes and gin, and his method was Flannery O'Connor and Lewis Grizzard and James Brown.
He did not say that the clock was moving too slow. He said: "Somebody poured molasses on the clock!"
When Georgia beat Auburn to get to the Sugar Bowl he shouted: "Look at the sugar falling from the sky!"
When Georgia scored a game-winner against Tennessee he said: "We just stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot!"
When the defense needed a stop, he shouted "Hunker down!" When the opponent scored he talked about "our hearts were torn out and bleeding." When Herschel Walker ran over defenders on his first carry, Munson did indeed finish the call with the now famous: "My God, a freshman."
Receivers ran out of their shoes. Running backs kept moving forward even after their heads were chopped off. Defenders destroyed. Crowds went worse than bonkers. And nobody in sports -- I mean nobody in sports -- used the word "whatchamacallit" more creatively, poetically and spectacularly than Larry Munson. He used "whatchamacallit" the way Springsteen used cars.
My friend Tommy Tomlinson went to Georgia, and we would both listen to Munson games and call each other with our favorite moments. One moment stands above all else. There was the night Georgia was playing in a rainstorm in Mississippi, and the sideline reporter Loran Smith -- "whadyagot Loran?" was the rhythmic and reluctant-sounding cry from Munson during games -- announced that with the lightning crashing all around him, he was going to leave the sideline and find safety.
And this is what I recall Munson saying: "He says he's going to call it a night, but I think Loran going to a local cemetery to find a dead man named John Daniels."
I called Tommy, who of course was trying to call me at the same time. Tommy seemed to remember (and still remembers) hearing Munson say "Jack Daniels" which, of course, is what Munson meant. But I recall him saying "John," and I will always believe that's what he said. When it came to the whiskey of the South, Larry Munson was not about to use the informal. John Daniels has earned his respect.
There were people who didn't like Munson, of course, but it seems most people did, even those who despised Georgia or biased announcers. The bias wasn't the point. He just made it fun. He was over-the-top. He was literary and wacky and unpredictable. He was both intensely cynical ("We have no chance today," was pretty much how he approached every game) and starry eyed. He brought the same energy and wonderment and ferocity to every game. When the Bulldogs were losing, he was sure they would lose. When they were winning, he was warning about disasters lingering just around the corner (Hunker down!). And when Georgia actually won cherokee roses bloomed, Ray Charles sang, moonlight slipped through the pines.
I mentioned above that there were two reasons that it was a thrill to be on at halftime of a Georgia game with Larry Munson. The first is how much I liked him and enjoyed listening to him call games. I always felt better after hearing him do a game, win or lose, because it has always made me feel better to be around people who care and lot and don't mind if everyone knows it. I was able to tell him that.
But the second reason happened during the interview. I sat down and put on the headphone, he said a couple of nice things, I said more nice things, and we were on. And he said my last name perfectly. It really isn't that hard a last name, but that does not keep people from messing it up all the time. They miss the first "S" or they turn the "nan" in the middle into "noh" or they add an R or L sound for reasons that aren't entirely clear.
But Munson said it perfectly. I don't remember the interview, but I remember that, and when it ended he said it perfectly again. I thanked him, told him again how much I loved listening to him, and said: "And by the way, thank you for getting my name right."
Larry Munson smiled hard and said, "I practiced it a few times before you got in here."
So if you get a chance, raise a glass of whatever you're drinking to Larry Munson, the voice of Georgia football, who died Sunday at the age of 89. Larry, may you find an heaven of unbreakable chairs, trimmed hedges and sugar falling from the sky.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
As you might imagine, the last couple of weeks have been, well, a lot of things. Mostly, they've been horribly sad and haunting and sickening. But, well, you knew that already.
I have done something in the last week that I haven't done in years. I've unplugged. I have dropped off Twitter. I'm not on Facebook. I'm not scanning the Internet. And, as you may have noticed, I'm not posting on the blog. This was a personal decision I made so I could do the work I feel like I have to do. It's been interesting to go underground. I'm surprised how much more time I have in a day.
I'm sure I will plug back in when I finish my work … and I might pop on here with a post every now and again when something goofy strikes or when I think I have something worth saying or when Duane Kuiper does something great. But there's a lot to do -- even those extra hours I saved not posting on Twitter aren't enough.
Thank you for reading. Emotions are running high now, and they should be running high because acts terrible beyond words have happened. I appreciate all the opinions people have offered, including some of the most rage-filled. I've heard you. Now I am trying to do the best work I know how to do.
Let me say one more thing: I have spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks talking with many people who have dedicated their lives to preventing child abuse in all its forms, and especially child sexual abuse. I hope to talk with many more. If anything good can come from the alleged horrors of Jerry Sandusky, I hope it is that people will take measure of their rage and find the strength and courage to both report what they know to protect children, and (just as as important) lead those children to help. The statistics of how rarely people across America report child abuse are staggering and heartbreaking. The myth that children who are sexually abused can't be helped and are destined to be permanently scarred is monstrous and overpowering and that myth prevents so many of those kids from GETTING the guidance and support that could help them lead wonderful lives.
Child abuse -- all of it -- is a great worldwide shame. This Sandusky story is twisted and awful and painful. But it is also an opportunity.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
One of the things that has always fascinated me about the violent sport of boxing is the sweet nature of so many former boxers. Not all, of course. But some. Maybe it's because they left much of their fury and hatred in the ring. There was a sweetness to the Joe Frazier I met. He was, at those moments, struggling financially and unable to let go of his justifiable anger at Muhammad Ali. He was also proud of the wars he fought and maybe a little bit hurt that some people didn't remember him more often. Frazier was an Olympic Gold Medalist. Frazier was heavyweight champion of the world when that meant something. Frazier beat Ali in the first fight they fought, floored him in the 15th. They would, of course, fight again.
As a fighter, Frazier couldn't handle George Foreman -- there was just something Kryptonite about Big George and Frazier was knocked out both times they fought -- but he matched up artfully with Ali, left hook against quick jab, earthquake body blows against searing right crosses, neither willing to concede to the others will. As a man, though, Frazier couldn't handle Ali's charisma, his jovial cruelty, him calling Frazier "Gorilla" before they fought in the rhyming Manilla. Their third fight, the Thrilla, was probably the greatest fight -- or most horrifying, depending on your viewpoint -- in the known history of boxing. Two men tore into each other without restraint, seemingly beyond the scope of human endurance. Frazier was almost dead but unwilling to cease and desist when, according to Mark Kram's untouchable story, his trainer, Eddie Futch, stopped the fight with those most human of words: "Sit down, son. It's all over."
Frazier fought twice more after that, though he should't have fought again. He was batted around by Foreman and then he fought someone named Floyd Cummings to a draw in Chicago when he was almost 38 by actual years, and his body was ancient and wrecked. And then he lived the rest of his life in relative anonymity, a victim of Where Are They Now. As remarkable as Kram's live story was Bill Nack's legendary piece called simply The Fight's Over, Joe.
Yes Frazier was furious with Ali, and disappointed to be remembered as the lesser of two rivals. But, as I say, there was a sweetness to the man and when I got to sit down with him and talk about boxing he was funny and charming and wonderful. One thing I remember more than any other was his description of getting hit by Foreman. He said it was like getting hit by a truck going forward, and then hit by the same truck going backward.
And then he said: "But I'll bet I made other people feel that way too." And he did.
Well … I suspect you know why I have not posted a blog for a long time. It doesn't look like anything will be clearing up any time soon either.
But there have been things I've wanted to write about … so, with your indulgence, I believe the blog posts for the next few weeks will be Curiously Short.
I'll begin with this curiously short thought:
I wrote just about everything I plan to write for a while about the Penn State situation here. I know there are people who believe that I have a responsibility to write more, to have an opinion, to come out strong, I know this because many, many people have written to tell me that in no uncertain terms.
I respect their opinion. But I disagree with it. The way I see it: I have a responsibility to write the best, most insightful and most honest book I can possibly write about Joe Paterno. That's what I signed up for. I'm not backing down from that because of this awful, evil situation. I'm also not walking away from a life and a man. When something this horrible happens, it's hard to hear yourself think -- it's impossible for me to hear anything. I won't add to the noise. If you want to read instant and strong opinions about Penn State and Joe Paterno, I can assure you there is no shortage of howling there.